National Audit Office report finds government's legacy IT systems threaten public service delivery – a belief we share

Legacy government IT systems do not only hinder efficient efforts, they also prevent improvement in the quality of service for the public. The government's reliance on these systems is largely because they are tied into long term inflexible contracts. The commercial terms of these contracts can be limiting, and this is exacerbated by cost and risk aversion, especially in the current economic conditions. The public's expectations of public services continue to rise due to their interactions and experiences with the private sector.

In the private sector services are increasingly being delivered digitally so the public is asking why that isn't happening to the same in extent in the public sector. The answer is that many of the government's legacy IT systems just aren't capable of the same level of digitisation; they cannot deliver the self-serve experience that is commonplace in the private sector.

For a digital experience comparable to the private sector, government IT systems need fundamental re-engineering. The changes to government IT systems need to go beyond just improving user interfaces.

Government needs to create an online journey for the public, increasing use of automation, straight-through processing and self help. Most legacy IT systems were not engineered in a way that could make an online journey possible. Assuming it was possible to re-engineer these systems, the cost would most likely be prohibitive.

Furthermore, the majority of the technology that legacy IT systems are based on is not current or suitable for digitisation. Breaking constraints of legacy IT systems is not simple. The challenge though should be evaluated against the risk or remaining with a legacy IT system and also the potential benefits of transformation. The private sector has been very effective at moving their customer interactions to digital – channel shifting – and they have seen massive savings from doing it. Digital won't ever entirely replace  person-to-person interactions but evidence shows that most customers will choose a good digital channel over a person-to-person interactions. Where government has invested in modern IT systems that make digital channel possible, the majority of the public are using it.

A good example of this is that most people now renew their car tax online using the DVLA website, dramatically reducing costs, whilst at the same time increasing convenience to motorists in applying for car tax. The issue of legacy IT systems does not just extend to those that deliver public services. Questions should be asked about the cost and risk of not replacing legacy IT systems in the back and middle office too.

There is enormous scope for back and middle office efficiencies in the public sector, most though cannot be realised without modern IT systems. However, the implications are broader than just replacing legacy IT systems: the civil service also needs to adopt different styles of working and change cultures. The National Audit Office report recognises the need to go beyond just technological change. it highlights the risk of no action but also gives though to other obstacles. It looks at the direction government should take, the kinds of delivery model it could use, how to overcome the cultural obstacles to change and whether the skills exist within government to address the issue. Acknowledging the threat of legacy IT systems is critical, once government does that, it needs to think beyond just how to fund replacement systems and focus on transforming services for the public if it wants to achieve best outcomes.

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